Already, shortly after World War I, while the colonial system was at its peak, harbingers of its possible decline had appeared, to which perhaps out of pure sufficiency, not enough attention was paid. This was the case for the Rif insurrection.
Abd el-Krim inflicted a severe defeat on the Spanish forces at Annual, in the Spanish Sahara (Rif region). About twelve thousand men were killed (1922)! In the years that followed, the Rif insurrectionists went largely beyond the perimeter held by Spain. In the spring of 1925, it opened the road to Fez. Out of some sixty-five outposts, the French troops had to evacuate about thirty of them in haste and lost a dozen. That year, Abd el-Krim’s forces amounted to twenty thousand men and ten thousand back-up troops. They had about one hundred 75 mm field guns and machine guns taken from the enemy. To oppose this advance and counter Abd el-Krim, no less than a hundred thousand men were needed, with support of artillery and aviation. Abd el-Krim surrendered the following year. But what was new was the extent of the means henceforth necessary to win, in singular contrast with those needed before the Great War.
During World War I, the western front was the main theater—the eastern front had collapsed as testified by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk while the Gallipoli (Dardanelles) Campaign had been a costly failure— in a classic conflict, where belligerents discovered just how much fire was lethal, and that applying the ‘attaque à outrance’ (all-out offensive) doctrine got nowhere while devouring men.
Guerrilla warfare, at the time, was playing only a very marginal part in secondary theaters. Two figures stood out in it: Thomas Edward (“T.E.”) Lawrence and Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck. The first belonged to the winning side. “To the frontal offensive at all costs that prevailed at the time, the irregular soldier that was Lawrence substituted a dynamic use of space, thus changing into an advantage the weaknesses of the Bedouins, who were unfit for the cohesion of a disciplined shock troop. . . . His advantages: accurate intelligence to prepare effective raids, surprise, material superiority at a selected point (machine guns, mortar), and mobility.”1
Lawrence, a British agent dispatched by his state to try to exploit to the advantage of Great Britain the anti-Ottoman revolt being led by the Sharif of Mecca, carried out his mission remarkably well, with creativity and courage. Thereafter, he would transform it into a literary work.
The second character, a Prussian officer, arrived in Tanganyika, then a German colony, with about two hundred German officers and two thousand local back-up troops, to face down one hundred fifty thousand men of the British army.2 Using guerilla-warfare techniques, falling back when necessary to close-by Mozambique, he finished the war unvanquished and did not surrender until several weeks after the Armistice. He was welcomed in Germany as a hero. His testimony, a factual report, is very interesting but does not have Lawrence’s literary genius. Moreover, he belonged to the losing side.
When World War I ended, the two major colonial states divided up most of defeated Germany’s possessions: Tanganyika, the African southwest, Cameroon, and Togo in Africa, and all its island possessions in the Pacific.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement and Kemalist Turkey
The Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), which had planned a three-way division from which Bolshevik Russia was now excluded, was applied in its main features. In 1920, the Ottoman sultan signed the Treaty of Sèvres. This treaty was a compromise between what had been provided by Sykes and Picot, and US President Woodrow Wilson’s will to add the granting of Armenia. And so a state, cut out on a map, was granted to the Armenians who had survived the mass killings of 1915-1916, which would be later designated as genocide.3
The Ottoman Empire, reduced to Turkey, was severed in the northeast of the future Armenia (which the survivors hardly populated anymore and did not have the means to defend except in the event of a US mandate, as was President Wilson’s intention) and in the southeast of Cilicia, which came under French protectorate.4 As for the southwest, it came under the authority of Italy, a late-coming ally. The straits (to which the Russians had aspired) were controlled de facto by the British Empire. Meanwhile, the Greeks, concentrated on the Ionian coast, wished to widen, with military means, the settlement area that they had occupied around Smyrna for nearly three thousand years…
The treaty was accepted by the sultan, but Mustafa Kemal, the hero of Dardanelles, having gathered a national parliament in Ankara and having armed forces at his disposal, was opposed to it. The colonial dismemberment left to the Turkish state only a portion of territory in the northern center of the country.
Two years later, Mustafa Kemal reversed the situation by the force of arms. The Armenians were easily driven back around Erevan; the French, deprived of military means, were forced to leave Cilicia. The Greeks started an offensive with no logistics or political cohesion and collapsed while Smyrna went up in flames.
Mustafa Kemal established an officially homogeneous nation state, based on the European model—just like in its time Meji’s Japan had done. A population exchange of Greeks for Muslims was organized following the Treaty of Lausanne, giving birth to modern Turkey (1923). The caliphate was abolished in 1924, and Mustafa Kemal declared that Turkey was the exclusive country of the Turks. This is when the “Kurdish question” arose, involving about twenty percent of the population, whose only alternative was to assimilate or revolt.
In 1928, Turkey adopted a secular constitution, and Islam ceased to be the state religion. From 1925 to 1937, the Kurds rose up and were repressed with the fiercest severity; they were deported and their region was left to deteriorate economically while being most of the time under siege.
The British and the French in the Near East
During the war, the British had suggested the prospect of an Arab kingdom in the Near East. Faisal I, the Hashemite, would finally have to be content, not with Syria, which the French wanted at all costs, but with Iraq. Contrary to the Turks, the Arabs had no means to impose their will.
Iraq, which geographically covers Mesopotamia, was formed by the British out of three vilayets (provinces): Basra, Shia; Baghdad, mainly Sunni; and Mosul. This latter province was added to Iraq because Great Britain (unlike France) knew that it was an oil-producing area. It was Kurdish in its majority and included many Turkmens. From the start, the Kurds and the Shias went into dissidence while the British relied politically on the Sunni Arabs (approximately twenty percent of the population), a logical choice in a Muslim world, Sunni in its large majority and dominated by Great Britain from Egypt to India. Militarily speaking, the British back-up troops were Assyrians who, in the 1930s when the country had become independent, would pay a heavy price for their collaboration.
The severe casualties of World War I determined the British to utilize aviation, of very recent use, to subdue the rebellions. The Royal Air Force, in the early 1920s, was used in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Darfur (Sudan), and in Somalia. The insurrectionists, initially surprised and distressed, learned to disperse in order to minimize their losses. In Syria, the French had to face the Jabal al-Druze revolt in the 1920s. It should be pointed out that it was France that established the Alawite state.
The Bolshevik Revolution facing resistance
On its side, the Bolshevik Revolution was fighting off with strength and determination, every attack on what it considered to be the correct line: the peasant rebellion in Tambov (1921), that of Kronstadt (1921) paradoxically led by working-class sailors, guerrilla warfare in Daghestan in the Avars (1920-1921), the Dashnak insurrection of Armenians opposed to the Sovietization of their republic (1920), and Finnish guerrillas in Karelia (1921). And, of course, the Bolsheviks struggled to put down Makhno’s massive anarchist insurrection in Ukraine (1919-1921), with which it had to make do for a while.
Many revolts were attributed to the Kulak land-owning peasantry, whereas resistance was, depending on the area, ethnic and often religious or was activated by brutal collectivization.5
In Central Asia, a Muslim revolt led by the Basmachi broke out; its most active phase went from 1920 to 1923, then it continued with less intensity until the late 1920s. It was during this revolt that the Turkish leader Ismail Enver Pasha was killed, he who, shortly after the end of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, had offered his services to Lenin then gone over to the insurrectionists’ side. His dream had been to found a Turkish-speaking empire in Central Asia. He was killed in 1922. The Soviet counterinsurgency was led by Mikhail Frunze, who knew the societies involved well, and by Marshal Mikhail Nikolayevich, who published his conception of counterinsurgency at the end of his campaign.6 Neither of the two hesitated to strike without a second thought, all the less so that the Bolshevik Revolution was being threatened by more or less archaic counterrevolutionaries who were using Afghanistan as a sanctuary.
- Lawrence, Thomas Edward (1920) “Evolution of a revolt”, Army Quarterly of Defense Journal, Vol. 1, No. 1, translated into French in 1992 under the title, Guérilla dans le désert, 1916-1918, with an introduction by Gérard Chaliand, Éditions Complexe, Brussels. The quote is taken from the introduction. See also: Lawrence, Thomas Edward (1922), Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Book 3, Chapter 5, Oxford Times printing works, Oxford.
- Lettow-Vorbeck, Paul Emil von (1920), Meine Erinnerungen aus Ostafrika, Hase & Köhler, Leipzig.
- It was the scale of these exterminatory massacres that inspired Raphael Lemkin during World War II to coin the word “genocide.”
- Many Kurds populated this area, the same as Cilicia, handed over to France.
- Castagné, Joseph (1925), Les Basmatchis, Ernest Leroux, Paris; Arshinov, Peter (1974), History of the Maknovist Movement, 1918-1821, Freedom Press, London; Bennigsen, Alexandre (1983), “Muslim Guerrilla Warfare in the Caucasus (1918-1928)”, Central Asian Survey Vol. 2, No. 1, pp. 280-294; Olcott, Martha B. (1981), “The Basmachi or Freemen’s Revolt in Turkestan 1918-1924”, Soviet Studies, Vol. 33 No. 3, pp. 352-369.
- Nikolayevich, Mikhail (1926), “The Struggle against Banditry”, in LaQuer, Walter (ed.) (1977) The Guerrilla Reader, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, pp. 180-182.